Shape CEO David Hevey visited the 2017 Venice Biennale and offers us his view of what took place in the world of international art…!

As Shape’s CEO and Artistic Director, I am viewing art on the international stage. Naturally, then, in addition to attending the Frieze Art Fair in New York last month, I also attended the Venice Biennale to see what was going on in the world of international art. As people may know, the Venice Biennale is very much about countries championing their best-of-the-best artists to represent each country in their own national pavilions. These national pavilions range from the grand affairs of the main Biennale, such as the British Pavilion, to the pop-ups in disused schools of others, such as the Kenyan Pavilion. Of course, leading Shape, what I wanted to find is who is creating the new work around barriers-removal and/or telling stories about the way marginalised peoples live now. 

Giant toilet roll tube inside a circular object

So, to the art. Phyllida Barlow was the star of the British Pavilion, with her superb sculptural installation, ‘folly’. This was sculptural work of gigantic and amorphous half-dead, half-alive organic forms, staggering on and terrible in their death throes, as if some apocalypse of mediocrity had occurred, and all that was left at this end-of-days were warped wire fencing, gigantic toilet rolls, and other Pooteresque ephemera of the lower-middle-classes. ‘folly’ is as if the coming apocalypse or the end of days occurred specifically in an English country village. It is funny and superb and, perhaps most interestingly for Shape, it gives a nod to outsider art: in my view, ‘folly’ has some hints of an outsider aesthetic because, for example, Barlow’s giant pieces crash-the-frame, in that the sculptures are deliberately far too big for the rooms provided, the craft deliberately untidy, and the forms themselves as if from a survivor narrative: in ‘folly’, the untidy end is made beautiful.

Crashing the frame but much less successfully, Damien Hirst was also big In Venice. His huge megabucks multi-gallery installation, ‘Treasures From The Wreck Of The Unbelievable’, was the usual Barnum & Bailey affair of Hirst guessing-the-decade’s-zeitgeist while using other people’s artisanal skills to show it, brought together through Hirst’s art-direction approach to art. The ‘Wreck…’ concept is of an ‘unbelievable’ shipwreck discovery of hybrid stuff. The ‘Wreck…’ was, well, naff and, in my view, is Hirst trying to make post-modern art for rich people who might buy art-stuff.

Hirst is a very interesting art director, but less so an actually original artist? Nobody seems to have told Hirst the rest of the planet is living in an austerity narrative, while he makes work for the internationally rich elite?  A ‘Russian Guide to the Biennale’ recommended vomiting up your lunch post Hirst. Not sure I would go that far, but it was bizarrely decadent within its supposed playfulness. For me, it felt twenty years out of date.

The Hirst work felt to me hugely disengaged from any reality we inhabit now, whereas the Barlow felt to me to be faux-fearful for our end-of-days, but actually joyous and hopeful about a world ending very much not with a bang but with a slightly sarcastic and humorous whimper. Amidst so much art which said so little, or Hirst’s clear appeal to the art-market, Barlow’s was fun, profound, full of integrity and brilliantly realised. I loved it. Addressing contemporary concerns about decline of life on Earth, Barlow’s work is very much about the way we live now.  

Looking for more art about the way we live now, I was delighted to see much was on display at Venice; the Barlow as one example, but also in the Chilean Pavilion with the heritage-tragedy work of artist Bernardo Oyarzun’s ‘Werken’, the brilliant German Pavilion’s ‘Faust’ by Anne Imhof, with its starving youth digitally monitored, and at the superb Frank Walters’ ‘The Last Universal Man’ at the Antigua & Barbuda Pavilion, and in many other locations. If you go to Venice, check these out: diverse creative perspectives on the way the world is and the way we live now, which for me proved to be the leaders of Venice in terms of new or original works and curation holding a mirror up to the way we live now. For English-based creatives, work about the way we live now is increasingly important because of Arts Council England’s emphasis on the Creative Case for Diversity, and how much the arts need to reflect the contemporary, diverse Britain of today. 

Ancient styled doric-columns

Without a doubt, the Venice Biennale’s main diversity event however, certainly in the context of the Creative Case for Diversity and for showing the way we live now, was at the Diaspora Pavilion. Co-curated by David A. Bailey, a long-time leader and cultural theorist within the Black Arts Movement, this was a reframing of many of those major UK Black Arts Movement works into a new Diasporic international and non-national context – and it worked, recreating the same exuberant energy with which the Black Arts Movement came onto the scene in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s. Definitely check this one out if you are in Venice.

Next time, or the time after that, Shape Arts plans to be there at the Venice Biennale too, with a major international art exhibition about the unique heritage story of the UK Disability Arts Movement. Arguably the most successful political art movement in the world, in which disabled people and their allies broke barriers, helped change the law and made great culture about those fights, that story is the story of art we want to show and tell at the Biennale – a major ambition for us. The Disability Arts Movement is one of the great mirrors of the way we live now: inclusion, barriers removal, and a wider cultural landscape. Watch this space.

Banner Image: Artist Bernardo Oyarzun’s ‘Werken’ in the Pavilion.

Images (top to bottom): The giant toilet-roll-apocalypse part of Phyllida Barlow’s folly in the British Pavilion & the doric-columns-destroyed part of Phyllida Barlow’s folly in the British Pavilion.

Click here to read more Shape blogs!

To stay up-to-date with our news, events and opportunities, sign up to our monthly e-newsletter at the bottom of the page.